By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010; A10
Iran's formal notification Monday to a United Nations nuclear watchdog that it will begin producing higher-grade enriched uranium marks a new and potentially dangerous turn in Tehran's confrontation with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
Iran couched its announcement in terms of a pressing need for fuel at a 41-year-old, U.S.-built research reactor that produces medical isotopes for an estimated 850,000 kidney, heart and cancer patients. But in reality it means that Iran will be a significant step closer to possessing the raw material needed to build a nuclear bomb.
Indeed, Iran does not have the expertise to build the specialized fuel rods needed for the research reactor -- only France and Argentina are expert at it -- so the main consequence of Iran's decision appears to be moving up the enrichment ladder. If Iran tried to fuel the reactor itself, absent international assistance, it would be risky to the reactor and for public safety, according to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Iranian officials have acknowledged the difficulty of using homemade fuel. In an interview in December, Mohammad Ghannadi, vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that while Iran could try to produce the fuel itself, "there would be technical problems. Also, we'd never make it on time to help our patients."
Meanwhile, enriching uranium under the guise of medical needs will get Tehran much closer to possessing weapons-grade material. Iran insists it has no interest in nuclear weapons. But Albright said 70 percent of the work toward reaching weapons-grade uranium took place when Iran enriched uranium gas to 3.5 percent. Enriching it further to the 19.75 percent needed for the reactor is an additional "15 to 20 percent of the way there."
Once the uranium is enriched above 20 percent, it is considered highly enriched uranium. The uranium would need to be enriched further, to 60 percent and then to 90 percent, before it could be used for a weapon. "The last two steps are not that big a deal," Albright said. They could be accomplished, he said, at a relatively small facility within months.
Still, Iran did say that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog, could observe the additional enrichment. It is unclear how quickly Iran can begin the work -- and whether it would convert only enough material to run the research reactor for a year. A year's worth of fuel would not be enough for a weapon, but if Iran converted all of its nearly 4,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium, it would have enough material for a bomb.
U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair told the House intelligence committee last week that "Iran has the scientific, the technical, the industrial capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years and eventually to produce a nuclear weapon. The central issue is a political decision by Iran to do so."
In Vienna on Monday, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor confirmed that the agency had received a formal note from Iran announcing plans to begin enriching uranium up to 20 percent.
"IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano noted with concern this decision, as it may affect, in particular, ongoing international efforts to ensure the availability of nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor," Tudor said in a statement.
Since receiving the letter from Tehran, the IAEA has told member states that it is "seeking clarifications from Iran regarding the starting date of the process for the production of such materials and other technical details," according to a Europe-based diplomat familiar with the nuclear agency's response.
The Iranian government took the dramatic action just one week after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to open the door to new negotiations on fueling the research reactor. The IAEA, along with Russia, France and the United States, had offered to provide reactor fuel by using the bulk of the low-enriched uranium produced by Iran, but the negotiations broke down late last year. The countries made the gesture in hopes of reducing Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium -- and because the fuel would be returned in metal alloy rods that could not be turned into weapons material.
Ahmadinejad's expression of renewed interest in the deal undercut the U.S. push for new sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. China seized on his statement to say it demonstrated that there was still time for negotiations before new sanctions.
The Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions against Iran for failing to halt enrichment, to little effect. U.S. officials hope a fourth resolution will provide the momentum for even tougher sanctions to be enacted by the European Union and a broad coalition that would include Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Iran's announcement Monday elicited immediate criticism from many countries involved in talks with Iran -- but China made no immediate comment.
"The only path that is left to us at this point, it seems to me, is that pressure track, but it will require all of the international community to work together," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday in Paris.
China has overtaken the European Union to become Iran's biggest trading partner, according to a new analysis this week by the Financial Times that accounted for trade between Iran and China that appears in official records as goods from the United Arab Emirates.
Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and staff writers Craig Whitlock, traveling with Gates, and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.